In 1787, eighteen year old Peter Smith, Gerrit Smith's father, moved from New York City to upstate New York in what is now the Utica area. He was a partner with John Jacob Astor in the fur trade with Native Americans. As the fur trade diminished in the early 1790s, Smith and Astor turned to land speculation as a means of building their fortunes.
After the Revolutionary War, New York State engaged in deceptive practices with the Native Americans that successfully divested them of their land. The state then sold that land to private speculators in order to pay its war debts. Peter Smith bought some of that land and established his lucrative land sales business.
Gerrit was born to Peter and Elizabeth Livingston Smith on March 6, 1797 in what is now Utica. The Peter Smith family moved in January of 1807 to Peterboro, thirty miles west of Utica at the center of Peter's 50,000 acre New Petersburg Tract of land. As a nine year old boy in 1806, Gerrit had watched the building of his father's new house and Land Office in Peterboro, a process that utilized slave labor. Peter owned perhaps four slaves. When the construction of the house and Land Office was completed, he sold the slaves.
Gerrit received some early education in Peterboro, then attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, graduating in August of 1818 with a degree in Classical Letters. His desire to continue his education and become an attorney was blocked by the death of his mother on August 27, 1818, the day after he returned home from college. At that point, Peter decided to move from Peterboro, and sold his central New York land sales business to Gerrit for $225,000. Gerrit nurtured this business, paid off his debt to his father, and became a nationally known philanthropist and reformer.
In the 1820-1860 Reform Era, some people who noted the decadent state of American society committed themselves to reforming it. Importantly, they did not drop out of society, but dedicated their resources to remolding and improving existing institutions to provide more equitable treatment of all persons.
Smith also established new institutions to pursue abolition. He founded the Free Church of Peterboro, a sectarian-free church that melded the political pursuit of abolition with Christian principles; he founded in 1834 a school in Peterboro for educating young African Americans; he established the political Liberty Party for the election to public office of abolition candidates; and he operated a very active underground railroad station with his family in Peterboro.
Believing the education of African Americans to be a necessary step toward freedom, he not only founded the Peterboro school, but also financially supported integrated educational institutions such as Oneida Institute, Oberlin College, New York Central College, Berea College, and Howard University.
Gerrit Smith's commitment to equal rights for all persons extended also to women in an era when discrimination against them was intense. He viewed biological facts as the only differences between the sexes, and advocated equity of treatment in all institutional pursuits. Woman suffrage was an issue that he favored throughout his lifetime. His first cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, often advised and counseled him regarding women's issues, and his daughter, Elizabeth Smith Miller, was active in both dress reform and woman suffrage.
Although a self-proclaimed apolitical person, Gerrit was often encouraged by the public to run for political office. He was nominated for the United States Presidency four times, for the Governorship of New York State three times, and for the United States Congress once in 1852 as an Independent with no party affiliation. For this 1852 election, he refused to campaign, and asked people not to vote for him. They did so anyway, and he was elected to Congress. Because Congress was dominated by proslavery interests, Gerrit had very little influence there, and resigned his seat after one year to return to Peterboro where he felt that he could have a greater influence on the abolition of slavery.
When the Civil War ended in April of 1865, Gerrit Smith advocated leniency toward the defeated South. He forgave the outstanding debts of his southern clients, and traveled to Richmond, Virginia to sign the bail bond of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and contribute $25,000 to securing his freedom.
In his personal life, Gerrit's first wife Wealtha Backus died of encephalitis seven months after their January 1819 marriage. Three years later, he married Ann Carroll Fitzhugh, the daughter of a former slaveholding Maryland family. Between 1822 and 1842, they had seven children, only two of which lived to adulthood. Elizabeth Smith (1822-1911) became an active women's rights reformer, and Greene Smith (1842-1880) became a nationally prominent ornithologist and environmental conservationist.
Gerrit Smith died of a stroke on December 28. 1874.
Norman K. Dann PhD, Author